Friday, July 21, 2017

Are we facing "Robocalypse Now?"

For ages there have been concerns about workers being displaced by machines.  remember Ned Ludd?  John Henry?  With the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence, those concerns have become heightened recently.

Basic economics says that the introduction of a new advanced technology will have two effects on the labor market: (1) there will be some displacement of workers whose skills are no longer in demand (e.g., blacksmiths and the automobile, bookkeepers and the computer) and (2) the extra wealth created by more efficient production methods will lead to increased demand for a wide range of products.

MIT economist David Autor has taken a look at the historical evidence on productivity enhancements and displacement.  Exploring 19 countries over 35+ years, he finds that the displacement definitely happens and is sizable within the affected industries.  However, employment actually ends up growing overall.

The downside is that some skilled workers are displaced and lack attractive options.  This means we face a challenge creating new opportunities for the unskilled and medium-skilled workers who are most likely to be affected.  The full report can be found here.

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